Belfast Telegraph: Middletown

Daragh Carville: The priest, his brother and a big screen debut


Could Middletown be the first film to come out of Northern Ireland that's not about the Troubles? Lucy Gollogly spoke to its writer, Daragh Carville, about broadening our horizons - and landing hot property Matthew Macfadyen
27 October 2006

Northern Ireland's history of political conflict has provided a wealth of material for filmmakers and featured in some great movies, such as Some Mother's Son, In the Name of the Father and The Crying Game.

But while Co Armagh writer Daragh Carville, whose debut feature film Middletown is gaining praise at film festivals worldwide, wanted to explore what happens when extreme ideologies explode into violence, he was determined not to churn out yet another Troubles movie.

"Coming from Northern Ireland, we're used to the idea that religion is intertwined with violence. I wanted to draw on these ideas but I didn't want to write a Troubles film," said Carville, whose stage plays, including Language Roulette and Observatory, have been produced in Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the US.

The darkly atmospheric movie, largely financed by the Northern Ireland Film and Television Commission and the Irish Film Board, is set in a fictional Ulster town in the early 1960s and was shot on both sides of the border.

Locations included Glaslough, Co Monaghan, and the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Cultra, Co Down.

It tells the story of a fire-and- brimstone preacher, the Reverend Gabriel Hunter, played by Pride and Prejudice star Matthew Macfadyen, who returns to his home town to find its inhabitants - including his feckless brother Jim (Daniel Mays) and headstrong sister-in-law Caroline (Eva Birthistle) - mired in sin.

The dark tale that unfolds as the zealous Reverend tries to 'save' the townspeople, particularly the couple and their unborn child, explores how radical creeds can descend into bloody violence.

The film has a slightly otherworldly, unreal quality - almost like a Western transposed on to the setting of small-town Northern Ireland. Was this deliberate?

"The story comes from various different sources," explained Carville, who also writes for radio and teaches creative writing at Queen's University.

"I'd been listening to a lot of country music that inspired me, like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams - music that tends to focus on the Bible, but also on drink, violence and death.

"There's a lot of Western imagery and iconography in the film; I wanted to draw on that mythic storytelling style.

"It's not a straightforward naturalistic film. When I was writing I was always thinking about American cinema, about Westerns and about country music. It's set in Northern Ireland but it could equally well be set in the southern states of the US; it's set in the early 1960s but it has the feel of a place outside time."

The 38-year-old said he wanted to write a story that explored broad themes, which were not exclusively Irish. Post 9/11, the manner in which religious extremism and violence intersect has a clear resonance, and the film premiered not in Ireland but in the US, at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, in April.

"I wanted to get a sense of whether Americans would recognise it or whether it would be seen as a specifically Irish piece. And the audiences responded brilliantly, and did see it as a story about fundamentalism and violence generally," Carville recalled.

"It's about a doctrine that denies complexity and shades of grey; an extreme ideology that is life-denying. And that could be any religion or any fundamental ideology."

Meanwhile, having Macfadyen on board will do Middletown no harm - the 32-year-old is hot property after playing Mr Darcy opposite Keira Knightley in last year's Pride and Prejudice.

"We'd sent the script out to various people and Matthew read it and agreed to do it. This was quite a while ago, before Pride and Prejudice, and when we heard he'd got that we thought we'd lost him. But he stuck with us. He brings vulnerability and humanity to quite a frightening character," Carville said.

Screenwriters often find themselves shunted out once they hand their script over, but Carville remained central to the production, working closely with the cast, which also includes Gerard McSorley, Sorcha Cusack and Bronagh Gallagher.

"I'm very conscious of how lucky I was to be involved throughout the process because in the industry, the writer isn't the person with the most power.

"But I was able to do that because of the collaborative nature of the project - it was a real team effort."

In keeping with this, Carville, director Brian Kirk and producer Michael Casey, whose previous credits include Freeze Frame, are already working together on a film "very different in tone and energy" to Middletown, focusing on the experiences of young people in contemporary Northern Ireland.

Carville is very excited about the state of Ulster's creative talent at present, singling out playwright Owen McCafferty and poets Medbh McGuckian and Leontia Flynn for particular mention, although he acknowledges it's a precarious existence.

"It's always a struggle to survive in the arts because it's not recognised or funded in the way it should be. It's a pity because arts and culture - and people like Van Morrison, Seamus Heaney and George Best - are a massive counter-balance to all the negative news about Northern Ireland.

"The film industry is really interesting here as well; there are more films being made than ever before. The NIFTC make a very real contribution to that and they supported us in making Middletown.

"But, again, it took five years to get the money together for that: it was a long, hard struggle.

"But maybe things are changing, particularly with regard to film and TV. The government is beginning to recognise that if you want a sustainable industry, you have to put energy and resources in."

As for Middletown, Carville said he hoped audiences would make up their own minds when it comes to the morality of the film.

"It's a tough piece, it's a dark story and you get some quite extreme reactions. But the overall response from audiences has been very positive. I try to avoid taking too much notice of that kind of thing because, although if you get a good review it's nice for the ego, it doesn't help you write your next piece."

Middletown is released in Northern Ireland on November 3.